High-performance culture: be vulnerable

Here’s part 2 of building a high-performance culture, based on Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code and my consulting practice. The second ingredient to improving collaboration is: sharing vulnerability. How can we do that as professionals? It’s part of high successful cultures! Let’s learn, ask more questions and be courageous enough to be vulnerable.

In 1989, when a United Airlines flight crashed due to rare circumstances, they were partly saved with an extra pair of hands. A retired pilot instructor came up to the cockpit and started with expressing vulnerability: “I don’t know what to do but let me know and I’ll help you.” Short and continuous pilot notifications followed. Notifications are short communications:
I see this.
Do you agree?
What else do you see?
The crash ended better than it could have. It was incredible what the three pilots accomplished given the pile of failures and an out-of-control aircraft.

At Meyer’s restaurants, on your first day, waiters are told: “If you ask for help ten times then we know your service was good. If you try to do it all alone, it will be bad…”
New waiters are primed to ask for help at Meyer’s. They know that vulnerability is good as it helps the whole team open up and collaborate better.

Out of your comfort zone

In the vulnerability research by dr. Jeff Polzer at Harvard, people got two sets of questions to discuss. Set A were nice, personal questions to discuss with a stranger, for instance: What was the best gift you ever received and why?
Set B were personal questions that went further, for instance: Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
The Set B questions made people feel 24% closer to the stranger they talked with than set A. Set A allows you to stay in your comfort zone, set B invites you to share vulnerability. How can you use this knowledge? Once you have established safety (see part 1 of this blog topic) you can nudge people out of their comfort zones to help them connect and collaborate better. That’s exactly what I see happening in true learning cultures. Experimenting, failing, asking for help: normal behaviors in agile, learning organizations.

Why does vulnerability work so well? You send a signal that you have weaknesses and don’t know everything and you might need help. The other will respond to that signal, very often by helping (most people do). You start trusting each other and collaborating. Closeness and trust increase while doing so.
If you never share a vulnerable moment the other will cover up their weaknesses, too.
Vulnerability does not come after trust. It precedes it.
How can you benefit from this? Open up and share your questions, ask for help and see how collaboration and trust increase.

The Give Some Game research confirms the bonding effect of vulnerability. You and a stranger get four tokens, worth one dollar if you keep it but two dollars if you give it to the other.
The game entails one decision: how many tokens do you give the other person?
On average, people give 2.5 tokens – so they give a little more than they keep.
Next, people were made to feel vulnerable through a difficult experience before they played the Give Some Game. After this, they gave more to the other. When their sense of power was boosted, they gave less. This research showed a clear link between vulnerability and cooperation.

Cooperative behaviors are also contagious, also with strangers. In another experiment, people had to do a task on the computer that was rigged to crash just before they completed it. Someone would help them fix the computer. After this, participants did the Give Some Game and were more generous to the person who fixed the computer, but also to complete strangers.
The more help you get, the more help you give to anyone. This way, a virtuous culture of cooperation can develop!
How can you apply this in your team?

Ask questions

A small interaction intervention that embraces vulnerability is asking questions. Dave Cooper from the navy SEAL’s uses questions on purpose.
As humans, we have an authority bias that’s incredibly strong and unconscious. If a superior tells you to do something, we have a tendency to follow… But sometimes you need collective intelligence or you can’t wait for your superior. In other words, how do you develop a hive mind? You have to develop leaders in teams, you have to create a space of cooperation.
Cooper started small. When he made a statement, he asked the team: “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea?”
He steered away from giving orders and asked a lot of questions. “Anybody have any ideas?”

Dr. Carl Marci researched why some healers deliver great results with patients. The secret seems to be: they listen actively and intently. They hold the space.
Marci found that it’s hard to be empathic when you’re talking. You tend to be focused on yourself. When you’re asking questions and you are truly listening, you are focused on the other. You create a space of attention where the other feels seen, heard and acknowledged. Great insights or changes can take place in that magic space of listening.

So, what will you do with these insights? Ideas for actions might be:

Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often. The signal is: it’s safe to tell the truth here.
When forming new teams, pay attention to the first vulnerability and the first disagreement. Are we about appearing strong or about exploring together? Are we about winning interactions or about learning together?
Listen, nod, ask a few questions, give little suggestions
Resist the temptation to give your solutions – just ask questions to help the other find what might work for them
Endure the discomfort of feeling inefficient – vulnerability is the key to building a stronger team
Ask more possibility-oriented questions

© Marcella Bremer, 2021. All rights reserved.

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